Late this week, an online video featuring a masked person behind a desk called out Donald Trump on behalf of hacktivist group Anonymous:
“Donald Trump, It has come to our attention that you want to ban all muslims to enter the United States,” the unidentified speaker with a scrambled voice states. The video is a warning to Trump to “think twice” before he speaks. Shortly after the video posted, an apparent Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack temporarily took the website for Trump Towers offline.
The whole thing has all the classic makings of something we’ve seen quite a lot recently, of an Anonymous “war” on a person or a group that the hacking collective believes is guilty of wrongdoing. Earlier this fall, Anonymous declared war on the Ku Klux Klan. After the Paris attacks, the group declared war on ISIS. Each announcement was intensely observed and widely written about. The operations attracted praise from those who loved the idea of a vigilante crew of hackers taking down deserving targets, and criticism and concern from those who worried that Anonymous might not be able to follow through on its promise to use its powers for good.
For several years now, Anonymous has taken up plenty of operations, and made plenty of enemies. There was the time they went after Gamergate. There was Anonymous’ role in exposing details of the Steubenville rape case. And then there’s the group’s lengthy history of going after Scientology. But it’s misleading to imply that the entire collective put its weight behind each of these operations, acting as one. Anonymous’s operations are run by different groups, and sometimes those groups disagree strongly with each other. There isn’t a single official “Anonymous” Twitter account, or Youtube channel, or anything else. There are multiple accounts that have designated themselves as mouthpieces for the group.
Despite the Guy Fawkes masks and popular coverage, Anonymous isn’t a monolith or a hive mind. In the cases of the recent headlines about Anonymous’ “wars” on various enemies, there are also members of the collective who believe that the splashy campaigns designed to draw attention to Anonymous operations are hurting the group’s reputation way more than they’re helping.
Another Anonymous member suggested that the operations were indicative of an identity crisis within the collective:
An identity crisis within a loose collective of hacktivists shouldn’t be surprising, given that the group’s identity and missions have shifted quite a lot since its founding nearly a decade ago. But because of Anonymous’ recent run of headline-friendly campaigns, the current disagreements are playing out very, very publicly.
If you want to understand how Anonymous operations can be subjects of intense disagreement within the group itself, look no further than #OpParis. The operation, announced just after the Paris attacks, promised that the vigilante group would go to war against the Islamic State.
As we explained at the time, Anonymous’ announcement was actually more of a re-upping for a preexisting campaign — #OPISIS — against the Islamic State that started after the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year. It mostly consisted of crowdsourcing and identifying social media accounts that might have some connection to the Islamic State, and then reporting those accounts to the social networks.
#OPParis promised more of the same. Soon, it got messy. A Pastebin document emerged on an Anonymous-affiliated account, listing a number of alleged future Islamic State targets — a list that a well-known Anonymous Twitter account then disavowed:
The operation said that it had identified 20,000 Islamic State-linked Twitter accounts, but Twitter told the Daily Dot that their list was “wildly inaccurate” and basically unusable.
Those reports had echoes of another high-profile Anonymous operation, #OPKKK, which just weeks before had released links to several hundred allegedly white-supremicist social media accounts, after promising to “unmask” a thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers. Like #OPISIS, #OPKKK was marked by false starts, inaccurate information and a mismatch between the operation’s grand vision and its actual results.
The chaotic operation of OPISIS in particular has prompted some soul searching among Anonymous members. Discordian, referenced above, posted a nuanced critique of the operation to Pastebin in mid-November. Discordian expressed concern about the ability of Anonymous to follow through on its promises, noted that those active in the chats planning the operation didn’t really seem to know what their goals were, and criticized Anonymous participants for the “somewhat silly” practice of launching a new operation any time something’s in the news.
Jeremy Hammond, an Anonymous activist who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for hacking Stratfor, released a strongly-worded condemnation of #OPISIS this week. “As someone who hacked with Anonymous and marched against the war in Iraq,” the statement posted to Free Jeremy reads, “I completely oppose #OpISIS and any attempts to co-opt our movement into supporting the government’s militaristic agenda.”
All this comes after another major fissure in Anonymous: Earlier this year, the operation GhostSec split in two, with some members remaining part of Anonymous and others forming the Ghost Security Group, which has invited security firms and, indirectly, government intelligence and law enforcement agencies, to use them as a counterterrorism resource. Ghost Security Group has benefited from Anonymous’ shaky reputation for accuracy on Operation KKK, and positioned itself as essentially a professional version of Anonymous, without any of the baggage. Except, as David Auerbach wrote yesterday in Slate, “it’s not clear that GhostSecGroup knows what it’s doing.”
Anyway, yesterday was “Troll ISIS Day,” billed as the next step in Anonymous’ war against terrorism. That sounded fun.
Correction: This post has been updated to note that Ghost Security Group split from Anonymous earlier this year, not last year.